Night Boat to Tangier: Kevin Barry's unique brew of wit and mayhem lacks his usual depth

A gnarled lurch of a double-act. A missing mother. All manner of sweaty, randy, muzzy-headed hysteria. Kevin Barry, arch-divil of Irish literature and a feverishly unique mangler of the English language, is back with a third novel that almost never was, and it’s comforting to find that he can be relied upon for certain things.

Night Boat To Tangier began life as a commission by the Abbey Theatre, who were keen to capitalise on Barry’s post-Beatlebone intentions to once again don the clothing of a playwright (he followed up 2008’s successful stage adaptation of his award-winning debut short story collection There Are Little Kingdoms with 2010’s Burn the Bad Lamp and Autumn Royal in 2017).

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Somewhere along the way the plan changed, however, and it was decided to reconfigure Night Boat To Tangier’s tack towards publishing. But even if you knew nothing about Barry’s tourism in the world of theatre and the germination of this work, you couldn’t miss the stagey energies that dapple the pages throughout, giving this novel a twist that is either inspired or gimmicky, depending on your tastes.

Two characters wait for a third, and not a huge amount seems to really happen on the face of it. One couldn’t be blamed for finding Godot knocking on the door of such a premise, but the effect is boosted even more by the short, clause-length paragraphs of back-and-forth dialogue that racket between Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond.

The two Corkonian gangsters are camped at the Spanish port of Algeciras. They watch closely as the ferry from Tangier comes and goes. Their mission is to get a glimpse of Dilly, Maurice’s daughter, who has absconded to the Iberian Peninsula with a rabble of dog-on-a-rope crusties.

The pair are in their “low fifties”, and there is “old weather on their faces, on the hard lines of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths” despite “just about” retaining a rakish air. It is this old weather that we bound back to as the dynamic between the two men and Maurice’s estranged partner Cynthia is teased out into the sunlight. There is Dilly too, and how she fits in.

And so they talk, to themselves and each other, in short, salty licks or haunted flashbacks playing out in Cork, Berehaven, Barcelona and “the ghosted city of Cadiz”. There is the weighty fatalism you get with Barry’s work, as animal hungers and “fate’s arrangements” pull all the strings and the stench of inevitability rushes towards these wretched figures. Mountains have “slow, blank, unobliging faces”, and the Atlantic is already “the black Atlantic” long before Barry’s dystopian west of Ireland used that term for its seaboard in City of Bohane.

When the Limerick man is casting dark incantations such as these, the effect can be shocking, and that’s before you take into account the bold manoeuvres of his language.

We’re a third of the way through the novel before we come across a paragraph of any substantial length. It tells of Maurice’s slide into paranoid madness long ago in Berehaven while living with Cynthia, a rattling, adrenalised throb of bad luck, bad magic and bad thoughts. It is one of a few truly spectacular moments here and it makes you wonder what the whole thing might have been like without the script-like structure that preceded.

In short form, Barry can also stop you in your tracks with something that feels almost game-changing: “The days moved past like sentences, the nights.”

He’s funny as ever, too, getting great mileage out of the Cork condition (“He fell to his knees and declared tearfully that he loved her and his Cork accent had never been more pronounced”) and milking any backdrop for comic-noir potential.

There are compelling touchstones throughout, some obvious (Tom Waits, William Burroughs), some less so (Jacques Brel, the Pixies, Blindboy), and a tongue that is at times so slanged-up that you pity any reader attempting the book outside these shores.

But adapting a play into a novel – rather than the other way around – has left a few marks that it can’t seem to shake off. Apart from the shape of that stagey dialogue, there is an annoying habit here of rounding off the short verses located within each chapter with a punchy expletive, the very thing a lot of Irish plays are criticised for. There is also the sense that the characters in Night Boat To Tangier are operating under stage directions. Barry has admitted to being “a complete oul’ ham” and goes as far as to act out his characters’ speech.

Has this perhaps given too much emphasis on the external? In the present-day episodes as Maurice and Charlie wait it out in Algeciras, there is lots of pithy chit-chat about masturbation and getting old, but there remains a slight distance between the reader and these characters, as if we are looking down on them from the upper circle.

Entertaining as they undoubtedly are, and as wildly perverse as their words and actions continue to be, by the end of the novel there is an elusiveness to them that keeps them at arm’s length when surely the novel is meant to bridge such chasms.

The Barry brew of mayhem, violence and tenderness is still undeniably potent. He is out on his own in the broad scheme of things, and so much here reminds you of why this is so and what he can do when airborne. And if it appears that on this occasion he has not quite reached the rounded brilliance of some of his other works, there is perhaps some comfort in remembering that few others have.

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